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Relief from the Arch of Titus, showing The Spoils of Jerusalem being brought into Rome

Relief panel showing The Spoils of Jerusalem being brought into Rome, Arch of Titus, Rome, after 81 C.E., marble, 7 feet,10 inches high. Speakers: Dr. Steven Fine and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Voiceover] We're looking at the bas-reliefs of the Arch of Titus, the most famous of which show the spoils of Jerusalem being brought into Rome in the great triumphal parade honoring the general, soon to be, emperor, Titus, at his great victory at destroying Jerusalem. - [Voiceover] A triumphal arch is something through which the emperor would enter with booty, with lots of attendants and soldiers and prisoners of war. I mean, this was a big moment of celebrating victory in Rome. - [Voiceover] At the end of which the general of the losing army would be ceremonially murdered. - [Voiceover] Did that happen at this? - [Voiceover] Yes, a guy named Simon, son of Giora, who was one of the rebels of Jerusalem, was killed at the end. - [Voiceover] In art history, when we look at the Arch of Titus relief, we sometimes miss the violence, and we tend to talk about it informally because, in so many ways, it exemplifies ancient Roman art. The figures are naturalistic. There is even an illusion of space as these soldiers carry the booty, from the temple in Jerusalem, through a gate of the city. - [Voiceover] Well, we're very fortunate that the Jewish War had its historian, Joseph, son of Mattathias, in Hebrew, Flavius Josephus, in Latin. He was a Judean general who switched sides in the middle of the war, and was supported by the emperor's family to write the history to convince Jews to not be part of this war and to convince Romans that only a small part of the Jewish people were revolting against Rome, and so Josephus is standing at the moment of this triumphal parade, watching it with ultimate perplexity, I think, not knowing which side he was on, and so what we see here is the unique situation where a Roman triumphal parade is responded to by someone who understands the triumph and suffers the triumph at the same time. - [Voiceover] Mmm, Josephus. - [Voiceover] Josephus. - [Voiceover] The Roman Empire is growing in the first century, and the Romans are moving into what we would call the Middle East and the province of Judea. Judea becomes absorbed into the Roman Empire. - [Voiceover] Judea, it has polytheists and has Samaritans, people whose holy mountain is in what's now Nablus, and lots and lots of Jews, and the Jews and the Samaritans are not so happy about these pagans coming into their country and taking over their holy land, and the complexities of interaction boiled in such complex ways, and so we're watching a culture figuring out what it means to work with this very peculiar group, with its one temple for the one god. - [Voiceover] And that one temple is in Jerusalem. - [Voiceover] In Jerusalem. - [Voiceover] In that temple are holy objects. - [Voiceover] Where most peoples would have a different temple in each city, so there'd be a temple for my god here, and I'd go to another city, there'd be another god. Jews only had one, and so they had special rights, for example, in the Roman Empire, to send back their donations, from wherever they lived, to Jerusalem where other people weren't allowed to send money across international lines. The Romans worked to find a way to take these people, who had the potential of being good subjects, but had certain odd needs. They had their temple, and they insisted upon circumcising their children, and they had food laws, and they had a thing called a Sabbath, and all of these were very weird to Romans in different ways. They weren't all unique to Jews so, for example, Egyptians would circumcise as well, but many of them were strange, and Judeans were so apparent because they had a religion of books and people could read them, and so the complex problem led, for example, to the building of the temple in Jerusalem that, by all intents and purposes, looks like a Roman temple of the age of Augustus, but has something odd about it, and that is it has no statues, no images of deities, which Romans would say, "Oh, that's a Roman temple without the fun stuff, "without the things that are meaningful," and Jews would say, "This is the Jerusalem temple, no images here." - [Voiceover] But there were things in the temple. There were holy objects, and that's what we see here, being carried into Rome as spoils, in the Arch of Titus. So we have the menorah, a very important symbol in Jewish history, especially in the Roman period, but we see other holy objects that were in the temple, like the shew table. - [Voiceover] Table for the shewbread, or the table for the bread of the face of God, this bread that the Pentateuch, that the Torah says should be set before God and 12 breads placed upon it, and continued to be used, not the same table but replacement tables, until we come to the one that's illustrated on the arch, which is a typical Roman table. Where non-Jews would have put the images of their divinities, Jews put their holy objects that served the divinity, but, when the Romans came and took Judea, the last of the Jewish kings, a fellow named Mattathias Antigonus, minted a coin and on one side there was a menorah, on the other side was the table. - [Voiceover] After a long and terrible war, with the Jews fighting against Roman occupation, we have the most holy objects, taken from the most holy places, shown as pure booty. - [Voiceover] The cool thing is that you could leave the Arch of Titus, walk under it, go a hundred or so yards, and enter into a temple built by the emperor Vespasian, Titus' father, where the greatest art of the age had been collected in a way to claim the greatness of Rome and of Vespasian and, on one of the pedestals, see the self same lamp-stand and the same table and the same horns, and so it was possible to go back and forth between the real objects described in Josephus' text and shown in the arch, and then, into this ancient museum, but not a museum like our museums. A museum of war booty and of trophies collected by a man who was about to become a god himself, so it's a deeply meaningful procession for Romans but, for Jews, it must have been ghastly. (gentle piano music)